Recently I heard a sermon in which the Christian gospel was compared (in a kind of round about way) to a display or presentation at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. The implication seemed to be that in the case of the latter (in the normal course of events) we might react with almost any degree of skepticism or credulity–either way, it’s OK, since little hangs in the balance. “But suppose you were told that your life depends on believing it? Would you not examine the evidence very carefully?” The minister then proceeded to suggest that many who reject the historicity of the gospel narratives have probably not examined the historical record very closely and argued (or at least asserted), during the remainder of the sermon, that those who do examine the evidence usually find it quite compelling (e.g. Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, et al).
My question in response, is as follows:
1) Would it be OK if we framed the question this way, instead: “But suppose your life depended on correctly evaluating the truth or falsity of the claim(s) being made in the presentation? Would you not examine the evidence very carefully?”
The difference is a subtle one and may not seem worthy of great reflection, but here’s the way the sermon struck me and would probably strike most skeptics:
When we are asked to assume that our life depends on believing (in this case, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not presentation), the analogy reflects the kind of scare-tactics that are widely employed in religious cultures around the world–including evangelical Christian culture! The only difference is that in the case of religious communities (evangelical Christian communities, among others) we are not merely told that our continued life and well-being in this world depends on believing certain claims (about Jesus and the Bible), but that the eternal destiny of our soul hangs in the balance–i.e. whether we go to heaven or hell when this life is over!
Clearly, the fear of death and eternal judgment evoked in the communal, religious setting influences our consideration of the evidence. Moreover, we are not taught these things merely as adults (or even as teenagers), but (most of us) were exposed to these ideas long before the age of reason. So just as Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are real enough to many children, so the threats of hell and hopes of paradise to which we are exposed as children– along with the stories of Christ’s Nativity and Resurrection –may already be believed (on some level) before we are at all competent to examine the evidence. The Jesuit motto, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man”, comes to mind…
Make no mistake, I am not equating the Christian gospel with stories of Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy– nor am I suggesting that we ought not teach the Christmas and Easter narratives –but surely we can acknowledge the tremendous pressure that is exerted upon us (in the evangelical subculture) to believe the Christian gospel as it is preached to us from our youth up. Moreover, whereas we do not encounter any adults insisting on the reality of Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy (once we are old enough to seriously doubt them), a strong Christian faith and testimony is, in contrast, idealized and usually aspired to (on some level) by a majority of the adults in our church communities. As such– before we are even teenagers –we are strongly predisposed to believe if we don’t believe already. And by the time we are adults, our extended family relationships– along with any number of other personal, professional, and political relationships –usually make “believing” much easier than not. And if, per chance, we leave the reservation for a time as young adults (asserting our independence, so to speak–whether as atheists or agnostics or new age explorers), there is often an underlying discomfort that may make us feel like “prodigal” children and which may, in the end (along with other factors), motivate us to return.
On one level, all of this is well and good as far as I am concerned–it is part and parcel of being a human being in any culture or subculture. But it is not the same as examining the evidence as if our life depended on correctly evaluating the truth or falsity of the claim(s). Rather, we are taught, instead, that our life depends on believing… And it is worth noting that this does not merely effect the lives of those who believe. For when the subculture in question has considerable political clout, what is believed can have profound effects on the world at large.
If this is not yet clear, we need only imagine that we had grown up in Saudi Arabia or Iran–if this were so, would we not have had every reason to read the Qur’an; to pray to Allah 5 times each day; and, more generally speaking, to be a good Muslim!? How the Qur’an and the story of the Prophet (PBUH) is idealized in such communities… How beautiful it all must sound to the ear that is accustomed to hearing the call to prayer… How wonderful the paradise which is promised… And how terrible the judgement of God which must inevitably befall the unbeliever…
Moreover, the family, social, and political pressures (and rewards) for living and believing in the Islamic social and cultural framework that a typical Muslim is born into are just as great (and just as reinforcing) as those which many of us have experienced (together with our parents and children, per chance) growing up in the Bible belt.
If this is acknowledged– and it is undeniable, is it not? –one cannot (in good faith) suggest that accepting Christ might be a matter of simply “looking at the evidence” (as if the truth of the gospel can be demonstrated by means of logical, historical analysis). Is it possible that coming to faith in Christ is merely a matter of weighing the empirical evidence for the resurrection!? As I will attempt to explain later, no it is not… But if it were an empirical question– and if one really wanted to examine the evidence carefully and impartially and without wishful thinking –here is how the question should be framed:
Suppose your eternal destiny in heaven or hell depended NOT on believing in the empty tomb and other such miraculous events, but on correctly judging whether those stories are (as a matter of fact) physically, historically true!? Suppose you would burn in hell if you DID believe in the bodily resurrection (if it turned out that, in fact, Jesus’ remains decayed like all the others we are familiar with). Or suppose you would go to hell if you DID believe in the virgin birth (if it turned out that Joseph or some Roman soldier was, in fact, his father). Suppose these question really cut both ways–suppose the risk was the same on either side of the equation? How would we weigh the evidence then?
We would weigh it quite differently, would we not? Much more cautiously, I dare say… But like Pascal’s wager, the risk, as it is taught to us in church and Sunday school, is all on the side of not believing. Add to that the incredible family and social pressure (and encouragement) to submit to the community (to the world view and belief system being presented), and it is not hard to see why the children of Christians tend to become Christians (just as the children of Muslims tend to be Muslims).
Of course, when push comes to shove, it would probably be misleading to suggest that anyone believes that people are saved merely by giving their intellectual assent to the (alleged) facts of the virgin birth and the empty tomb (and such) in the wake of logical, historical analysis. For even if it is thought that such assent is somehow necessary, it would probably also be acknowledged that such assent is not sufficient apart from an authentic encounter with the living Christ.
But since He lives (and, indeed, is not so far from any one of us), what would keep us from encountering Him NOW without such assent? Why can we not open our hearts to Him NOW while remaining honestly agnostic and skeptical about this or that alleged historical detail? Abraham, it is said, saw his day, and was glad–and Saul of Tarsus encountered him on the road to Damascus. Neither had the benefit of the gospel narratives that have come down to us. And while Saul of Tarsus must have been familiar with some of the stories associated with his resurrection, he certainly did not believe them prior to his encounter with the living Christ. And even after that encounter he makes no explicit mention of an empty tomb. Moreover, he specifically states (with regard to the resurrection, generally) that the body which is sown is not the body that shall be (I Corinthians 15:37). As such, except for its symbolic value (more on this below), the empty tomb does not seem at all essential.
Of course, if you find the arguments presented by any of the aforementioned authors persuasive (Habermas, Strobel, et al), well and good–that may, indeed, open your heart to the possibility of living faith. But simply acknowledging certain elements of the gospel narratives as “historical” (in the context of considerable fear and/or social pressure/encouragement) cannot in and of itself constitute living faith. Indeed, more often than not it would seem to reflect the adoption (or acknowledgement) of Christianity as one’s cultural identity, political ideology, and/or social support system.
However, whether or not the aforementioned elements of the gospel narratives reflect physical, historical realities, their spiritual function and symbolism remains intact. For example, the story of the virgin birth symbolizes Christ’s Divine origin and archetypical relationship to the Father. It also helps to illustrate (among other things) how that you and I must be/can be/and ultimately are (by the grace of God) Christ-like—born of the Spirit/born from above…
While flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven– in Adam all die –we are, nevertheless, chosen/created in Him before the foundation of the world unto good works. As such, we can, by the grace of God, respond appropriately to our heavenly calling:
“here am I, Lord–send me . . . let it be it unto me according to your word…”
The Easter story, too– whether or not it could have been captured on a digital camera (as suggested in the cartoon to the right) –reminds us, nevertheless, that He lives (and that because he lives we can live also; that we can know and trust him NOW; and that we need not hesitate to follow his example and present our bodies a living sacrifice…
“not my will, but thine be done”
Indeed, taking this as our starting point, we can begin to learn first-hand what it means to be crucified with Christ and that being raised up together in heavenly places with Him, we are no longer (through fear of death) subject to bondage…
The point is that these narratives can still prepare our hearts, as children, to be open to the life of the Spirit–and then, as adults, they continue to point us to the living Christ, whether or not we believe that they accurately reflect historical events that could have been empirically recorded and analyzed. Unfortunately many miss the point entirely because of the scare-tactics of those who insist that these stories must be construed as literally/historical true in every physical detail or else be rejected as false (either it’s all true or none of it is, we sometimes hear people say). This, in turn, leads to a kind of fanaticism that expresses itself not only religiously, but morally and politically, as well.
In another sermon from a year or two ago, I seem to recall the same minister (as the one alluded to in the opening paragraph) suggesting that we can tell God anything (after all, there no use pretending that He doesn’t already know). I agree 100%. As such, I think we would do well to confess our skepticism rather than denying it: Lord, I am skeptical about the historicity of the virgin birth… I am skeptical about the story of the empty tomb and the ascension… Moreover, I am skeptical of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment of unbelievers that is used in our evangelical subculture to coerce people to into submission.
Having said this, let me also say that there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are not infallible and, in any event, it is easy to see that sometimes a myth is a story that is true on the inside whether or not it is true on the outside. As such, I can endorse the teaching of these narratives without presuming that they are historically factual in every respect. Even the doctrine of eternal conscious torment may have a limited role to play in our Christian communities–I would not rule it out. But at the same time, I would pose this question to any advocates of the You Better Believe It gospel who may be reading this:
Can we not honestly articulate whatever degree of skepticism and agnosticism we honestly feel about such things while at the same time sincerely calling upon the name of the Lord and trusting in Him to lead us into all truth!?
Clearly we can and, indeed, many of us have done just that and continue to do so. What about you? Are you willing to acknowledge your skepticism–so help you God!? Or does that seem too risky!? 🙂